How can you ever fittingly pay tribute to the legendary Stephen Sondheim? That's the unenviable task set out by the Old Friends gala concert which celebrates the late, great composers legendary catalogue of work. Tickets sold out in a heartbeat when they first went on sale and I was lucky enough to snap one up... even if it was the worst seat in London (No, literally. Not even an exaggeration). I had no intention of writing a review for this concert - I was there to live in the moment and pay tribute to the great man, but some nights are so special, I just have to write about them. And believe me, there is SO MUCH to say about this one.
Old Friends did just what it said in the title - brought together those who had worked with Sondheim throughout their careers - helmed by Cameron Mackintosh whose relationship with Sondheim went back 46 years. Hosting it at the Sondheim theatre which had been rebuilt in his honour, though sadly he never got to see it, felt extremely fitting. You wouldn't expect such high production value from a one night concert but the barricades from Les Miserables were nowhere to be seen with the entire set all but covered up (apart from a clever use of part of their set during the Sweeney Todd segment) to reveal a beautiful set design by Matt Kinley that added a touch of glamour to the occasion.
The talent that assembled to honour Stephen Sondheim can only be described as a dream... though one you imagine you would never see in your lifetime. Dame Judi Dench, Imelda Staunton, Michael Ball, Rob Brydon, Clive Rowe, Petula Clark, Janie Dee, Bonnie Langford, Damian Lewis, Gary Wilmot, Julia Mckenzie and Julian Ovenden - and that's barely scratching the surface. This was a night where catching your breath following one jawdropping performance was not an option as you were transported straight into the next phenomenal one immediately. To say the whole experience was overwhelming would be an understatement.
For me, seeing Bernadette Peters perform in the flesh was a bucket list moment - and she didn't just sing, she PERFORMED. There is a reason she is a legend in her field - her movement and her entire essence is completely mesmerising to watch. Even though I knew she was in the lineup, it didn't stop me (and about 1000 others) gasping when she first appeared under a red cloak to perform 'I Know Things Now' from Into The Woods. Each performance she did just got better with a spine-tingling 'Children Will Listen' and quite possibly the single best number of the night with an awe-inspiring 'Losing My Mind' from Follies - a masterclass in how to deliver a perfect performance.
The highlights came thick and fast - having potentially dropped tears into the stalls following 'Losing My Mind', I was thrust straight into Imelda Staunton reprising her role as Mama Rose from Gypsy for a rousing 'Everything's Coming Up Roses'. The choice to have those two numbers back to back felt very much like an attack on the senses! Other standouts were Petula Clark's stunning rendition of 'I'm Still Here', Gary Wilmot being his brilliant self on 'Buddy's Blues' and a hilarious performance from the always spectacular Janie Dee on 'The Boy From...'. Haydn Gwynne was spectacular on an especially drunken 'The Ladies Who Launch' while a performance of 'Send In The Clowns' from Dame Judi Dench was incredibly special and ensured there was not a dry eye in the house.
The evening also contained a host of unique collaborations. Michael Ball and Maria Friedman had both done Sweeney Todd but never together so an extended sequence of the pair performing numbers from the show, complete with more staging than you would expect at a concert like this, was an undoubted highlight. Bernadette Peters joined forces with Bonnie Langford and Anna-Jane Casey for the funniest moment of the night - 'You Gotta Get A Gimmick'... though I may never look at a trumpet the same way again. A huge highlight was Julie McKenzie beginning 'Broadway Baby' which was a moment in itself... until she was joined by 10 more performers including Bernadette, Jenna Russell and Helena Bonham Carter in a fleeting but memorable performance.
We were treated to some huge group numbers - act one ended with a rousing and emotional rendition of 'Sunday' led by Bernadette Peters and Daniel Evans, while a cast including Rosalie Craig brought the house down with a beautifully poignant rendition of 'Being Alive'. You could hear the tears all over the venue as pictures of Sondheim throughout his life played to the cast singing 'Not A Day Goes By'. The evening ended rather fittingly with a group of future stars joining the established performers on stage for the final number 'Our Time'. Sondheim famously championed up and coming talent so this felt very appropriate to honour his legacy.
The full song list from this magnificent evening is below:
The songs came alive with a gorgeous sounding 25-piece orchestra conducted by Alfonso Casado Trigo, with the arrangements by Stephen Metcalfe. Staged by Matthew Bourne and Maria Friedman, it would be easy to expect nothing more than people standing and singing during this event but attention to detail was given to every element including expert choreography by Stephen Mear, beautiful lighting by Warren Letton and sound by Mick Potter. With a great use of props and costumes, this felt more like greatest hits scenes from Sondheims shows rather than simple performances of songs from them, with Sweeney Todd, Follies, Into The Woods and Company enjoying their own segments.
I sometimes get accused of being too enthusiastic in championing my passion for shows, and exaggerating my feelings when i am truly blown away, so it is understandable some may not believe me when i say this was the single greatest night I have ever experienced in the theatre. If you were there, you'll understand what I mean by that and might agree with me. If you weren't, trust me when I say I mean that from the bottom of my heart. Stephen Sondheim was a genius who did so much for the industry and changed the face of musical theatre - I can't think of a better way to honour him than how every single incredible talent that graced that stage last night came together to do so. The atmosphere was palpable, you could hear a pin drop during the singing and the rapturous applause was like none I had experienced before - not to mention the constant standing ovations. If I needed reminding why I loved musical theatre after what has been a difficult few days in the industry, this hammered into me why I honestly couldn't live without this beautiful medium.
Stephen Sondheim has left behind a wealth of incredible shows and songs that will live on forever - to be in a room celebrating him with so many likeminded people was a stark reminder of how beautiful theatre can be, especially when everybody comes together like they did last night. This was a night I will never forget and one I will cherish as long as I live.
There are currently no plans to release the filmed version of this concert, but considering it was streamed live into a neighbouring theatre, keep everything crossed we can see this remarkable evening again. The concert was in aid of the Stephen Sondheim Foundation.